3 Things I’ve Learned from Teaching Teens Online

An increased interest in online teaching has emerged in recent years. Such interest has become even more prominent due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the quarantine, during which teachers worldwide had to take up online teaching overnight. Many of us had been teaching adults – or taken online lessons and courses ourselves – for a while, but teaching a group of teenagers through a screen was unimaginable.

Given my considerable experience with online teaching, I was very confident about welcoming my teenage students to a video call. Little did I know that the first lesson would be so off-putting! Actually, I guess I had overlooked the challenges associated with my new audience. For this reason, I had to rethink my practices and make a few changes when planning the next lessons.

Despite such changes, I eventually realized that teenagers acted a certain way behind their screens. And no matter what I did or how much I tried to change this, it was almost impossible to have them behave differently. So, I’m here to present the three things I’ve learned from teaching teens online and reflect a little about them.


1 They won’t turn on their webcams (and sometimes not even their microphones)

This has been a delicate issue for most teachers. The feeling of helplessness takes over us because when students don’t have their cameras on there’s no way of knowing if they’re actually on the computer. They may as well have logged in the meeting room and left!

When I noticed this started happening way too often, I started naming them all the time, asking each of them questions. This way I make sure they are there and that they’re at least listening to me. If they don’t respond, I take the necessary measures, as liaised with the school’s pedagogical team.

I’ve addressed this issue with my students even though I had no expectations that they’d change their behavior. Still, I was genuinely interested in what they had to say, and some usual responses are “I’m shy” or “I don’t look good on cameras”. I must say I wasn’t convinced that these were plausible excuses because the same students who said that were the ones who always post selfies on their social media.


2 They feel more confident to speak in face-to-face lessons

While it’s true that online lessons create some great opportunities for students’ active participation, I’ve noticed that some of them find that speaking on a microphone is a daunting task. I can understand that. Online meeting rooms usually put one person at a time on the spot, which makes the interaction different.

Notwithstanding the fear of making mistakes in L2, there’s also the fear of speaking in public factor. Answering an open question in a face-to-face lesson seems easier than doing so online. What’s more, some people don’t like to listen to their own voice in videos/audios, so the thought of having a group of people hearing it is terrifying.

A suggestion for this problem is planning ahead and coming up with different patterns of interaction. Why not include tasks which students can work together in smaller groups in breakout rooms?


3 They too struggle with technology

It is a fact that today’s teenagers are digital natives. However, it is also a fact that they need to be taught about technology. Growing up amidst gadgets and social media hasn’t necessarily made tech savvy youngsters. Most of them do learn very fast, but they sometimes need guidance here, too.

For example, if they have to save, send and attach files and don’t know how to do so, one thing that could be done is to recommend some tutorials available on YouTube, or you can teach them yourself by sharing your screen and explaining things. This is a great opportunity to teach them how to organize files in different folders. This way they’re also learning soft skills.


In spite of all the challenges we’ve been facing in the past months, what comforts me is to think that when all of this is over, we’ll have become better teachers, more resilient professionals and more evolved humans.

I would like to hear your thoughts on this. What challenges have you faced? How have you dealt with them? Feel free to leave a comment or write to me at contato@henriquezamboni.com.br and keep the discussion going.

Henrique Zamboni has been in ELT for more than 10 years, having worked for different language schools. He holds the CPE and the CELTA, a degree in Letras and a degree in Marketing. He is the founder of Inglês Para Adolescentes, where he is a teacher of teenagers and teacher trainer.

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